February 25, 2010


Khachaturian: Concerto for Cello and Orchestra; Concerto-Rhapsody for Cello and Orchestra. Dmitry Yablonsky, cello; Moscow City Symphony Orchestra conducted by Maxim Fedotov. Naxos. $8.99.

Schuman: Symphony No. 8; Night Journey—Choreographic Poem for Fifteen Instruments; Ives/Schuman—Variations on “America.” Seattle Symphony conducted by Gerard Schwarz. Naxos. $8.99.

     On one side of the Iron Curtain in the 1960s, Aram Khachaturian was producing his intense and eloquent Concerto-Rhapsody for Cello and Orchestra (1963). On the other side, William Schuman was creating his equally personal, equally (but differently) intense Symphony No. 8 (1962) and flashily orchestrating Charles Ives’ 1891 Variations on “America” for organ (1964). The relationships among the works, tonally and harmonically if not in style, are more apparent in hindsight than they were four decades ago. But their equal, if different, musical effectiveness ought to have been apparent from the start.

     Khachaturian’s Concerto-Rhapsody gets a big, warm and highly involving performance from cellist Dmitry Yablonsky (frequently a conductor) in partnership with conductor Maxim Fedotov (frequently a violinist) and the Moscow City Symphony Orchestra. Not surprisingly with two soloist-quality string players interpreting it, the work sounds especially fine in the interplay between Yablonsky and the orchestra’s string section. But the brass and percussion – which Khachaturian uses effectively for fanfares and rhythmic propulsion – are fine as well. The single-movement work, which lasts long enough to be considered a full-fledged concerto, features long lines and thematic material that lies well on the cello, along with the Eastern inflections that are a Khachaturian trademark. This is a work of sweep and elegance, both cohesive and expansive, and a real workout for the cello soloist (it was written for Mstislav Rostropovich). The Concerto-Rhapsody is paired on Naxos’ new CD with the earlier Cello Concerto (1946), an even larger work that is filled with atmospheric themes and strong rhythms but that lacks the immediate appeal of its later cousin. Even when as well played as it is here, the concerto is missing a clear emotional focus: the first movement has portentous and forceful elements, the second is sensuous and the third is lively, but somehow they do not add up to a cohesive whole. Yablonsky and Fedotov tackle the concerto with enthusiasm and highlight its many excellently structured passages and fine instrumental touches, such as the handoff of the third movement’s opening theme from oboe to the solo cello. And the concerto will grow on listeners – it seems more of a thought-through whole after several hearings than after one. Still, it never quite packs the emotional punch of the Concerto-Rhapsody.

     Schuman’s eighth symphony, first heard at the opening of New York City’s Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in 1962, is emotionally involving in its own way, especially in the first two of its three movements. Schuman uses a large orchestra – with plenty of percussion – not only to generate sheer volumes of sound (lots of fff) but also to create textures that range from the ominous to those of chamber music, as in the long lines of violins, oboe and trumpet in the first movement and the harmonic and rhythmic complexities of the second, which follows it without pause. The finale is appended a bit uneasily to the first two movements: its playful themes and interesting orchestral effects (pizzicato strings against glockenspiel, vibraphone, xylophone and piano!) do not seem to follow naturally from what has gone before, although they are certainly interesting in their own right. Gerard Schwarz leads the Seattle Symphony effectively throughout the symphony, doing an especially good job of bringing out the strong brass writing. But Schwarz is less convincing in Schuman’s orchestration of Ives, which also traces its origin to the opening season of Lincoln Center: Schuman suggested it at that time to fellow composer Henry Cowell, Ives’ artistic executor. Schuman’s orchestration is far flashier than Ives’ highly creative original set of organ variations – Schuman sometimes comes very close to the point of deliberate near-vulgarity. This work is a great crowd pleaser, one of two superb mid-20th-century encores or concert openers (the other being Leonard Bernstein’s Candide overture). But Schwarz is a bit too fastidious in this performance. All the elements are there, but most of the tempos drag a bit (until the very end), and Schuman’s clever instrumental effects, such as castanets, are not brought to the fore as much as they can be. The piece is still fun, but it could use a bit more raucousness than Schwarz gives it.

     Also on the Schuman CD is Night Journey, a 1947 ballet that Schuman wrote for Martha Graham, based on the story of Oedipus’ mother/wife Jocasta, and adapted in 1981 for small ensemble. It is pretty much what one would expect from a score on this subject: dark, pensive, dissonant and unsettled, with an increasing sense of violence as it progresses. It is not top-notch Schuman, but it has moments of somber power, and Schwarz and the Seattle players give the music the intensity that is its due.

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